In the Hallmark film “Love Comes Softly” (2003), recent widow Marty Claridge wonders about her love for Clark Davis, also a widower, after spending a winter with him. Neighbor Sarah Graham tells her, “Sometimes love isn’t fireworks. Sometimes, love just comes softly.”
This is how many people see Christmas today. In lavish productions, Joseph and Mary cradle baby Jesus while a choir sings “Silent Night” and a ballet dancer hovers nearby. In the Southern Baptist production I attended yesterday, the choir began with secular songs while performers carried shopping bags and ballet dancers mimicked the Rockettes – a modern, clean version of saloon hall dancers. The evening improved with spirited renditions of “Glorious Impossible” and “Joy to the World.” I still couldn’t dismiss the scandalous Rockettes from my mind, although the medley had good choreography. Southern Baptists from 100 years ago would have turned over in their graves!
It doesn’t matter whether Christians sing “White Christmas” or “Silent Night,” or perform the Rockettes or the nativity. The problem is the same. The church has sanitized Christmas in order to appeal to middle-class audiences. But she’s forgotten what Christmas is all about. Yes, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” But love didn’t come “softly” 2,000 years ago. It came raw.
The birth of a baby is raw. Exhausted mothers struggle, as blood and water lie everywhere. The birth of Jesus Christ was no different. The King of Kings was also born in a stable and placed in a feeding trough in the humble village of Bethlehem, rather than a king’s palace or the Jerusalem home of a high priest. We don’t see this raw and humble birth at church during the Christmas season today. All we see is a clean, refreshed Mary holding a white blanket on a stage.
Obviously, unlike production companies churches don’t have the time or tools to reproduce an authentic birth scene. Children in the audience need a G version too. This isn’t ER. However, sanitizing Jesus’ raw, humble birth is the least of the church’s problems.
Jesus was born at a dark time in Jewish history. The Jews had a 4,000-year-old promise that God would send them a deliverer, the Messiah. One preacher phrased it, “They waited on tiptoe for Christmas.” By the time Jesus arrived, the Jews had lost their nationhood status. They had also been subdued by a godless Rome that crucified criminals, hanged troublemakers, and made slaves of children if the parents couldn’t pay their taxes to Caesar. Herod Antipas, governor of Judea, was an incestuous murderer who considered himself “king of the Jews.” He didn’t want to hear from the wise men that another king had come. Jesus had to flee Herod’s soldiers when he was only a year or two old, resulting in the slaughter of the innocents.
However, Rome wasn’t the Jews’ real problem. The people walked in spiritual darkness, mired in sin from the time of Adam and Eve. They were also led astray by priests and scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees mostly. Just like King Herod, these groups were disturbed when they learned that the “king of the Jews” had been born in Bethlehem. They feared he would upset the delicate political balance in Jerusalem. Devoid of faith, the priests and scribes wouldn’t travel six miles to see Jesus while the wise men had traveled hundreds. They weren’t even looking.
That first Christmas was raw and dangerous. The birth of Jesus was real, messy love on display. He was born the “light of the world” in the midst of great physical and spiritual darkness. “The Nativity Story” (2006) tells it best. This film is everything that the modern Western church is not. Unlike Jews and slaves, she doesn’t know what it’s like to wait on tiptoe for freedom – year after year, century after century. Unlike persecuted Christians in third-world and developing nations, she doesn’t know what it’s like to be subdued by a godless foreign power either.
Herod understood the threat of Jesus Christ, “another” king. Maybe that’s why the unbelieving world makes war on Christmas today. They also understand the threat. Sinners will go to hell and back before they’ll give up the throne and crown of self. I’m not sure that shallow Western churches understand. They’ve sanitized not only Christmas but also salvation and Easter Week. They offer cheap forgiveness without preaching sacrifice and submission. Preachers recite the “sinner’s prayer” today so that sinners don’t have to embarrass themselves at the altar under the convicting power of the Holy Spirit. Instead, “with every head bowed and every eye closed,” they silently pray another man’s words while no one is seeing who they are, what they’ve done, or if they’ve repented. Even worse, some churches move the altar from the sanctuary because “they don’t want to disturb anyone.” Others refuse to sing about the blood of Jesus.
The crucifixion of Jesus was messy, as “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) attests. Just like his birth, Jesus’ atoning death on a Good Friday in Jerusalem was raw and humble. Blood and water lay everywhere. Repentance is messy too. Just watch the final bridge scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) or Edmund’s transformation in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” (2005). This is the cost of doing real spiritual business with God.
Sin kills the body, soul, and spirit. It’s ugly and raw, so why should atonement be polished and pretty? God made the Jews get their hands dirty with the blood of innocent lambs for 1400 years so they would know just how real and messy his saving love is. I wish the church would get its hands dirty snatching sinners from the fires of hell. Some of them live raw, ugly lives. They need to know the raw power of God’s saving love. Sinners need Jesus in their mess. How can a shallow Western church minister to them with a sanitized Christmas and Easter?
God’s love in the form of Jesus Christ didn’t come to this earth “softly.” So I want my Christmas raw. I hope I’m not alone.